Gold: Remembering Robert Spellman

Five weeks ago, my Head of School called our senior class of 13 students to the curved amphitheater and sat us down. He announced with as much sympathy as one can when delivering sad news: "We recently learned that Bob, a former Head of School, has passed away."

People cope with grief in many ways. The timing of this announcement could not have been worse as we entered IB mock exams, followed quickly by final exams. Then again, when has death ever been to the convenience of anyone? Certainly the idea of a convenient death is a guilt-inducing thought, a selfish prospect - perhaps, probably, an impossible one.

I swallowed the death like I often take pills against the scoldings of my mother - quick, dry, without water. And it stayed, like it felt that the pills often did, stuck in my chest. I pushed mourning out of my head, as if it were something that could be pushed, handled, held pragmatically. 

I learned a lot about him that night, typing into Google a search for his obituary. He was 53 when he died - the same age as my father - and he had moved back to Orlando, Florida to be with his family. That last one brought about a smile that prickled my face; Bob had always loved Disney World.

One night, I read in a sitting "Tuesdays with Morrie," motionless, but for tears that silently wet my cheeks and dripped off my chin on to the pages. Then, once more, I swallowed the bitter pill and went upstairs to the common room, where the last scenes of the latest Fast and Furious movie played. The dramatic CGI scenes of men pushing each other through walls of glass seemed a grotesque contrast to the sad simplicity of the words that stayed in my head: "Death ends a life, not a relationship." 

Tonight, somehow, the chest has opened and eyes closed, the memories of the great Bob Spellman play. Somehow, the evening of cramming treaties and dates for tomorrow's 9am exam has exhausted the will to fight the natural urge to remember, to feel, cry, laugh for my friend Bob. The first person I ever knew to actually be called Bob, he had counseled me in my most depressed days. He told me walking was better than running and that my fish earrings looked great. He was a former ambulance driver and counselor at a correctional facility for men in Illinois - the kind who cared, asked questions and really listened. Everywhere he carried an arsenal of stories - drunk teens, crying wives, IV drips. I wonder how his last moments were, whether he was at peace or in pain, whether he lay strapped to a bed in the back of an ambulance, aware, whether the driver thought, 'This man won't make it.'

Back in Cuenca, the town in Ecuador where I began traveling the world as a waffly fourteen-year old, back when I first began to feel that overwhelmed sadness that would follow me, he sat me down and asked me, "Are you gold, or are you garbage?" I asked myself that question many times after, both rueful and glad that Bob was not there for the days I answered the latter.

It is strange for emails to exist from people who no longer do but in hearts and minds. They comfort, they kill. 

The last correspondence we had was in the summer of 2012, the summer I took a political philosophy course at Stanford and the summer it was announced that Bob would not be returning for the following school year. The last email I sent him reads: "I don't know, but here's the short version: I couldn't really believe it. But I know that we will not become strangers. You have taught me so much and I hope you know what a lifeline you were to me in Thailand. I couldn't have trusted anyone more."

He never replied; I never asked why. We became strangers in the way that distance, time and silence creates. But I never lost the sense that he would be there for me, a proud friend from afar, as I, as little wisdom as I carry, would be for him.